04/05/2017

Actually, Neil Gorsuch Is A Champion Of The Little Guy

Timothy P. Carney, American Enterprise Institute

Andrew Yellowbear is not the type of plaintiff you would probably call a “good guy.” He is in prison for beating his daughter to death.

But he certainly qualifies as the sort of “little guy” Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee like to talk about these days. Yellowbear, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, is an ethnic and religious minority, and a prisoner. Even among the inmates at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution, Yellowbear was reviled. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t have many people looking out for him to make sure he gets a fair shake.

Except for Neil Gorsuch.

The prison in which Yellowbear serves has a sweat lodge. Prison officials barred him from the lodge because Yellowbear required special protection and escorting him to the sweat lodge would be a hassle. Yellowbear sued, but the court ruled against him on summary judgment. Yellowbear appealed, and Gorsuch heard his appeal.

Gorsuch ruled in Yellowbear’s favor on the grounds that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its sister statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, compelled the prison to go to great lengths to accommodate Yellowbear’s religious observation.

Gorsuch’s opinion in Yellowbear v. Lampert is a masterpiece in religious liberty jurisprudence, laying out how the text of those two laws requires the state to defer to the religious individual, even if the state thinks it has a good reason not to. Prison guards may not become the law and supercede the law, even if they think they know how best to run their prison.

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